UPDATED: State relaxes some of COVID-19 order, keeps mask mandate and adds restrictions

ST. GEORGE — Utah will be continuing the mandate that masks must be worn in public spaces but will be loosening restrictions on social gatherings after the stroke of midnight Tuesday.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

Updated Nov. 23, 2020, 8 p.m.: More details including expanded testing, relaxed quarantine rules for business, hospitalizations high, updated county-by-county numbers

However, the new COVID-19 order announced by Gov. Gary Herbert Monday morning still has some new restrictions for events, businesses and restaurants – especially in areas that are seeing high transmission of the virus, which includes most of the state and all of Southern Utah.

The state health department also announced a return of a less restrictive COVID-19 Transmission Index that divides counties based on high, moderate or low spread of the virus, like the one that had been in place before the governor ordered a two-week “circuit breaker” on Nov. 8.

A large expansion of testing was also announced that immediately allows anyone in the state to get tested for COVID-19 regardless of if they are experiencing symptoms or not. 

The governor expressed optimism as the state as a whole started the week with lower numbers of new infections and a stabilization of the positivity rate. However, that was not the case with Southern Utah, which saw another 216 new infections on Monday and two additional deaths in Washington County, according to the Utah Department of Health.   

The biggest source of optimism has been the recent news of three vaccine trials entering their last phases with a between 75-95% success rate. Herbert said it is just a matter of weeks before the first Utahns will receive doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, and he expects them to be available to all Utahns by next summer.

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Nov. 23 2020. | Background photo by by mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“We see a little daylight at the end of the tunnel for the first time. Vaccines will be available in the next few weeks for vaccines that have a 95% effectiveness,” said Herbert, who noted there are also signs in the statewide data from the Utah Department of Health that the mask mandate and other measures by the state designed to curb the virus may be working. “There are indications we are starting to flatten out a bit but we need another week to see the effects.”

While the five-county area showed no large reduction of new infections on Monday, the city-by-city data from the Utah Department of Health, which is usually a day ahead of the overall Southern Utah data, showed signs the surge may be receding.

All of the major Southern Utah cities – from St. George to Hurricane to Cedar City – showed an across-the-board 50% reduction in new infections on Monday. It remains to be seen if the new data is a sign of a multi-day trend.

A less optimistic trend that continued Monday was a continued string of multiple deaths from COVID-19 in Southern Utah – especially Washington County and among those 45-64 years of age. There have been 20 people locally who have died of COVID-19 in the last 11 days. 

As the previous health order expires at the end of the day Monday, the new order will maintain the order that masks are required to be worn in indoor public settings and outdoors when social distancing can’t be maintained. 

What will not continue are the orders that required people to not hold social gatherings with people outside their home.

The complete new order can be read here

Rich Saunders, the interim director of the Utah Department of Health, responded to a question from St. George News that the new orders are relying more on people to act on their best behavior on their own toward protecting themselves and others, rather than mandating it. Even while there are state and federal recommendations not to gather with people from outside their household for Thanksgiving, Saunders and Herbert both said the state government will not force anyone’s hand. 

Graphic showing the restrictions under the revised Utah COVID-19 Transmission Index. | Background photo by Pixabay, graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“It’s a very dangerous situation, but in the name of not intruding into people’s residences, we’ve pulled back,” Saunders said. “Hopefully we’ve learned a lot and people will make good judgments.”

During a Monday morning news conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Herbert insisted his goal is to continue to balance the needs of public health, business and people’s personal liberty.

He also said it is no longer about finding a way to stop the coronavirus as much as it just making it to next summer and what he expects to be a wide distribution of the vaccine. 

“Everyone is looking for the magic bullet to solve the problem and, unfortunately, there isn’t one,” Herbert said. “This is about how do we endure and keep the economy functioning.”

While relaxing most of the restrictions besides the mask mandate that was put in place two weeks ago, the new order does have new restrictions that especially affect restaurants, bars, businesses, schools and those holding events. 

  • Organizers of any public social gathering event must register their event with the Utah Department of Health and in high-transmission areas are required to keep 6 feet of distance between patron groups
  • Restaurants in high transmission areas must maintain 6 feet distance between all parties, and bars must stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.
  • As soon as possible, but no later than Jan. 1, Dixie State University, Southern Utah University and other universities must require every student to have a COVID-19 test every 14 days.
  • School extracurricular activities and sports, which were postponed by the governor’s order two weeks ago, can resume. However, all participants – from the players to the coaches to the trainers – must be tested for the virus every two weeks to participate.

The state has relaxed the rules for businesses to allow people back to work while being quarantined for exposure to someone with the coronavirus. Adopting the policy for schools, workers can now return to work after seven days, rather than 14, if they get a negative COVID-19 test five days or later into their quarantine.

The COVID-19 Transmission Index, first introduced in October, is making its return but won’t have the teeth it did before. 

Map shows the current level of each county in Utah according to the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health as of Nov. 23, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Whereas before when it included orders to reduce the number of those in gatherings based on the severity of the virus spread in each county, the revised index only issues recommendations. While everyone in the state is now covered by a mask mandate, the index will serve more as a guide now rather than a restrictive measure. 

“There’s no real differentiation in the order, but there is a difference in the recommendations,” Saunders said.

Regardless, just about every county in the state – including every county in Southern Utah – is considered “high” in the new index. 

If there was any hope for any Southern Utah county to move lower in the transmission index, it would be for Beaver County which, at a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 9% in the last 14 days, is the only county to be below 10%.

Nevertheless, of all of the people who have had coronavirus in Southern Utah since the pandemic began in March, 39% are infected now (4,164 of 10,686). The number of local people hospitalized with the virus hit its highest level Monday with 46 Southern Utah residents with COVID-19 in Dixie Regional Medical Center. 

That makes having anyone outside the household over for Thanksgiving even riskier, which despite the easing of the gathering order, Herbert strongly reiterated against on Monday.

“Bringing in people outside your four walls will increase risk,” Herbert said. 

Chart shows the percentage chance of being exposed to COVID-19 in room with 10 people in certain cities as of Nov. 23, 2020, according to the Georgia Tech biological sciences department. | Background photos by Chris Reed, St. George News, Pixabay; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

According to Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Risk Assessment Survey, at this point, a person gathering with 10 people from outside their household is nearly three times as likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in St. George as a person would be in a home in the much larger cities of Los Angeles and New York City.

Herbert revealed that he was a descendant of Mayflower passengers John and Elizabeth Howland and evoked the spirit of them and their fellow pilgrims.

“It was a struggle that first year, and the next year began the recovery. I see some similarities for us today,” Herbert said. “I would hope all of us can have that same can-do spirit and do the right thing this Thanksgiving. We have a heritage of can-do.”

Even while the number of new infections may be stabilizing, the seemingly daily new record for new cases last week will likely translate into even more needing to be hospitalized and dying of the virus in the next week according to state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

“Hospitalizations are a result of the cases of our last week, so we know hospitalizations are going to increase,” Dunn said.

More testing becomes available 

During the governor’s Monday press conference, Dunn announced that a long-awaited expansion of COVID-19 testing in Utah to include those who do not have symptoms of the virus has been activated, and that includes Southern Utah. 

A saliva-based COVID-19 test is demonstrated at the Intermountain Healthcare Southridge Clinic in Riverton, Utah, on an unspecified date. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

“Everyone who wants a test can get one,” Dunn said. 

A person wanting a COVID-19 test, even if they don’t have any symptoms, can go to TestUtah.com to make an appointment. A person still needs to go through the full symptom questionnaire, but even if they say they have no symptoms, they will be given the option to get an appointment slot for a test.

While TestUtah no longer operates a drive-thru testing site at Red Cliffs Mall in St. George, it has now added two testing sites in St. George at the Active Life Center on 200 West and at Dixie State University in the Udvar-Hazy parking lot.

St. George News did a test run of the TestUtah site Monday morning and was able to get a COVID-19 test scheduled for Tuesday without symptoms. That is an improvement over the two-day wait to get a test at other local testing sites last week.  

The one drawback, at least for people in Southern Utah outside the St. George area, is there are no TestUtah sites in Iron, Kane, Garfield or Beaver counties. 

TestUtah started out as a private effort by Silicon Slopes companies in Salt Lake City to provide COVID-19 testing sites in Utah, including the Red Cliffs Mall.

However, the state took over TestUtah in August after questions over its testing methods and a controversy surrounding no-bid contracts with the state.

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Nov. 23, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 10,686 (248.7 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Nov. 22)

  • Washington County: 8,563 (192.4 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 1,592 (40.6 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 153 (4.1 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 229 (7.4 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 149 (4.1 per day, falling)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 95 (falling)
  • Washington City: 24 (falling)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 22 (falling)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 13 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 42 (falling)

Deaths: 83 (1.9 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 70 (2 new since last report: hospitalized male 65-84, long-term care male 65-84.)
  • Iron County: 4 
  • Garfield County: 6
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 46 (rising)

Active cases: 4,164 (rising)

Recovered: 6,439

Current Utah seven-day average: 3,310 (rising)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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